Election recount under way in Baghdad

BAGHDAD (AFP) – A controversial recount that could alter who becomes Iraq's prime minister began Monday in Baghdad, the latest in a series of pivotal steps threatening the vote's credibility.

The war-torn country's March 7 parliamentary poll has yet to produce a government and the outcome remains shrouded in doubt due to the recount and an imminent ruling on whether several winning candidates should be disqualified.

Iraqi electoral employees recount ballots cast during the recent parliamentary election at the Al-Rasheed hotel in Baghdad.AFP photo

The United States is increasingly concerned that an initially credible election could unravel because of a political stalemate, a lack of democratic transparency and the potential disenfranchisement of a large number of voters.

The recount follows a successful appeal by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who alleged that he had lost votes because of violations at polling centres in Baghdad during the March 7 ballot.

No sooner was it under way than allegations of "ballot stuffing" were raised by a leading member of Maliki's State of Law Alliance, who hit out at how the recount was being conducted, and lodged an appeal to stop it.

Baghdad was by far the biggest prize in the election almost two months ago, with 70 seats on offer in a new 325-seat parliament.

"We will count 600 boxes today," Qassim al-Abbudi, an official with the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), told reporters at the Rasheed hotel in the Iraqi capital where the recount is taking place.

Officials from the United Nations, European Union, the Arab League, and the US embassy in Baghdad are monitoring the process.

Former premier Iyad Allawi's secular Iraqiya coalition won the election, defeating Maliki by 91 votes to 89, according to results still to be ratified by the Supreme Court.

Both need 163 seats to form a majority government but coalition talks with smaller parties appear to have stalled.

Maliki won the vote in Baghdad -- taking 26 seats compared to Allawi's 24 -- in what was the second national election in Iraq since the 2003 US-led ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein.

But the recount could lead to a wider winning margin for the premier in the capital, allowing him to eventually overturn his two-seat defeat nationally.

Hussein al-Shahristani, Iraq's oil minister, and a close Maliki ally, however, hit out at IHEC's handling of the recount, insisting that voter lists be reconciled with the number of ballot papers sitting in 11,000 boxes.

"We presented a new complaint to the judicial assembly," said Shahristani, a member of Maliki's alliance.

"It shows that IHEC insists not to express the desire of voters, and we asked to compare the lists of voters names with voting papers in the boxes.

"So we demand the process stops or changes are made so that it works correctly."

At a briefing on Sunday, Ambassador Gary Grappo, head of the political section at the US Embassy in Baghdad, said he did not expect significant changes to the election result, following the Baghdad recount.

"We would hope and expect that the recount will take place in as transparent and credible fashion as the elections did on March 7," he said.

The recount coincides with a ruling expected this week on whether nine election-winning candidates will be disqualified.

The candidates are variously accused of links to Saddam's outlawed Baath party and military units during his reign.

Grappo said the role of the Justice and Accountability Committee (JAC) that compiled the list of candidates who could be stopped from taking up seats remained opaque.

"From our perspective we see the votes cast by individual citizens as sacrosanct, and now we see we have an organisation of questionable legitimacy trying to alter votes cast by citizens," he said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on April 27 urged Iraqi leaders to resolve their rows and form a new government quickly.

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